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George H. Torney

Photo George Torney

Surgeons General

GEORGE HENRY TORNEY (June 1, 1850 - Dec. 27,1913), Surgeon General, January 14, 1909 - December 27, 1913, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of John P. and Mary M. (Peacock) Torney.  He received his preliminary education at Carroll College, New Windsor, Maryland, which he attended from 1862 to 1867, following which he took the course in medicine at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville where he was given his degree of M.D. on June 30, 1870.

After an internship at the Bay View Hospital in Baltimore he entered the Navy as an assistant surgeon on November 1, 1871. He was promoted to passed assistant surgeon on December 18, 1874, but on account of intractable seasickness he resigned his commission on June 30, 1875. The following day,  July 1, 1875, he accepted appointment as a first lieutenant and assistant surgeon in the medical department of the army.  Then followed years of highly useful though relatively uneventful service in various army posts.  Upon appointment he was ordered to Fort Wood in New York harbor, from whence he sailed in November 1875 with a battalion of the 5th Artillery to Key West Barracks, Florida.  He served at Fort Canby in Florida  until May 1877 when he was transferred to Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory.  In September 1878 he went to Fort Wingate, New Mexico, and in December 1880 to Fort Lyon, Colorado, where he remained for the following four years. In this service in the southwest he saw the usual amount of field service against hostile Indians that fell to the lot of all medical officers serving in that section during those troublesome times.

In April 1885 he was brought east to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where he served for the next four years, after which he had four years of service at Fort Brown, Texas, near the mouth of the Rio Grande.  He had been promoted to Captain on July 1, 1880, and in September 1893 he was ordered to Philadelphia as attending surgeon and to prepare him for his examination for the grade of major.

He was promoted to major on June 6, 1894, and in the following month was detailed for duty as surgeon at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  He remained there until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, when in May 1898 he was ordered to equip and command the hospital ship Relief.  He served in this capacity, transporting sick and wounded from Cuba and Porto Rico to the United States, until the end of hostilities.

In October 1898 he was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and detailed as instructor in hygiene in the general service schools.  After one year of this duty be was transferred to the command of the Army and Navy General Hospital at Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he remained until November 1902.  From this duty he was transferred to Manila, P. I., and assigned to the command of the First Reserve Hospital.

In July of the following year he was transferred, seriously ill, to the general hospital at the Presidio of San Francisco.  In November he was sufficiently recovered to be assigned to the duty of chief surgeon of the Department of California.  After four months of this duty he was sent back to the Presidio as commanding officer of the general hospital.  He held this position from March 1904 until December 1908.  It was during this period, on April 18, 1906, that the great earthquake and fire occurred in San Francisco.  The army was active in the police and rescue work following the disaster and the Presidio hospital was taxed to the limit.  Lieut. Colonel Torney was placed in charge of the sanitary work of the stricken city and acquitted himself notably well in the face of the greatest difficulties.  The brilliant record that he made as an administrator and sanitarian during these trying days made him the popular hero of the city and assisted materially to give him the office of Surgeon General when it became vacant.  From November 1907 to November 1908 he filled the dual role of chief surgeon of the Department of California and commanding officer of the general hospital which was later designated Letterman General Hospital in War Dep't. General Orders, No. 152, November 23, 1911.  In the meantime he had been advanced to the grade of lieutenant colonel and deputy surgeon general on August 6, 1903, and to colonel of the medical corps on April 23, 1908.

With the retirement of General O'Reilly in January 1909 the strength of San Francisco's gratitude was sufficient to give Colonel Torney the vacated place, though the list of officers senior to him included such potent names as those of Colonels Gorgas, Havard, and Hoff.

General Torney began his career as Surgeon General on January 14, 1909.  He retained as his office assistants much of the same group that General O'Reilly had assembled and continued to advocate the policies laid down by his predecessor.  The reserves of officers, nurses, and supplies were built up, and the Walter Reed General Hospital was opened in May 1909 following the announcement in War Dep't. General Orders, No. 70, April 14, 1909, and the discontinuance of the hospital at Washington Barracks.  Immunization against typhoid fever was pushed to universal use in the army in 1911, and the use of venereal prophylaxis extended.  The Army Medical School was built up, department laboratories established, and sanitary measures improved.  An act of Congress approved March 3, 1911 (36 Stat. 1054), created the Dental Corps as part of the medical department.  It was a time of activity in the tactical training of medical personnel with the beginning of the instruction of medical officers in field work and medical tactics at the Fort Leavenworth schools and with added importance given to military hygiene in the service schools.  The mobilization of a maneuver division in Texas gave the medical department an opportunity to test for the first time the worth of their field hospitals and ambulance companies and the efficiency of the regimental sanitary equipment.  It gave also a practical test of the efficacy of the typhoid prophylaxis.  In the Philippines the work of the medical research board was fruitful in the practical elimination of beri-beri from the native troops.  General Torney's term of four years ended with a brilliant record of achievement in January 1913 and he was immediately reappointed on January 14.

His second term had advanced less than a year when on December 27, 1913, he died of broncho-pneumonia at his residence in Washington after an illness of some weeks duration.  He was within about six months of his retirement for age.

General Torney was a member of the American Medical Association and of the Association of Military Surgeons and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.  He was elected president of the Association of Military Surgeons at its Milwaukee meeting in 1911.  He was the Chairman of the War Relief Committee of the American National Red Cross.

He was married on January 22, 1872, to Mary A. Johnston of Baltimore.  She survived him together with one daughter and four sons.  One son followed his father's bent in the study of medicine and another followed him in a military career as an infantry officer.

Sources:  Who's Who in America, 1912-13; Mil. Surgeon, Feb. 1909;   Ibid.,  Feb. 1914; Boston M. and S. J., 1914, p.71;   J. A. M. A., 1914, p.52; N. York, M. J., 1914, p. 32;  N. Y. Med. Times, 1914, p. 121;  P. M. Ashburn, History of the Medical Department of the U. S. Army (1929); Records of the Office of The Surgeon General.

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches,"  Army Medical Bulletin, No. 52, April 1940, pp. 84-87, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]